Health Highlights: March 14, 2009

Obama Names New FDA ChiefUSDA Approves Conditional License for E. Coli Cattle VaccineReport Questions Value of U.S. Health Spending

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of HealthDay:

Obama Names New FDA Chief

Calling the U.S. food safety system a "hazard to public health," President Barack Obama on Saturday named a new head of the Food and Drug Administration to start overhauling it.

Obama, in his weekly radio address, nominated former New York City Health Commissioner Margaret Hamburg as FDA commissioner and Baltimore Health Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein as her deputy, the Associated Press reported.

The president said he would also create a Food Safety Working Group to coordinate food safety laws throughout government and advise him on how to update them. Many of these laws have been untouched since President Theodore Roosevelt's era, he added.

Obama called the current food safety system too spread out, and noted that recent underfunding and understaffing has left the FDA unable to inspect more than a fraction of the 150,000 food processing plants and warehouses in the country.

"That is a hazard to public health. It is unacceptable. And it will change under the leadership of Dr. Margaret Hamburg," Obama said, according to AP.


USDA Approves Conditional License for E. Coli Cattle Vaccine

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has granted a conditional license to a Minnesota company to market an E. coli vaccine for cattle to prevent a common source of beef contamination that has led to several large meat recalls in recent years, the Associated Press reports.

James Sandstrom, general manager of Willmar-based Epitopix, told the wire service the vaccine takes proteins that the bacteria use to absorb iron from the host animal and then injects them back into cows to generate an immune response against those proteins, without which the bacteria can't grow. The target is a strain of E. coli bacteria called O157 that sickens some 70,000 people in the United States each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Infection from contaminated beef can cause bloody diarrhea and dehydration, and in severe cases, kidney failure. Children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems are at greater risk of serious infection.

How the beef industry will respond to the vaccine remains to be seen, however. "That's the $64 million question," Sandstrom told the AP, which said many beef producers already face slim profit margins and may need incentives to use the shot. But Michelle Rossman, director of beef safety research for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, told the AP that support will come, since the industry has already spent millions of dollars to fight E. coli and is eager for strategies that work before slaughter.

The conditional license, the AP said, allows Epitopix to market the vaccine immediately, but it must continue potency and efficacy studies to get full licensure. Sandstrom told the wire service that the vaccine will enter commercial use this month, but it will be several months before it's widely available.


Report Questions Value of U.S. Health Spending

U.S. health spending is too high and delivers too little benefit, according to a report released Thursday by a group called the Business Roundtable, which represents the CEOs of major companies.

The United States spent $2.4 trillion on health care, or $1,928 per person in 2006. That's at least 2.5 times more per person than any other developed country, yet the health of Americans lags behind those nations, said the Associated Press.

The report factored health measures and costs into a 100-point "value" scale and found that the United States is 23 points behind five leading economic competitors: Canada, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom and France. All those nations have public health coverage for their citizens.

The U.S. lags even further behind (46 points) when compared with emerging economic competitors China, Brazil and India, according to the report.

"Spending more would not be a problem if our health scores were proportionately higher," Dr. Arnold Milstein, one of the authors of the study, told the AP. "But what this study shows is that the U.S. is not getting higher levels of health and quality of care."

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